In Under Fishbone Clouds, British expat Sam Meekings takes an unflinching look at a Chinese couple's marriage during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
You are British. How did you end up working and living in China?
At the end of my university course in 2003 I would spend the days frantically revising in the library with friends, and everyone would talk about what they would do when all this was finished. Everyone had something to look forward to. Except me. So I ended up on the university careers Web site and stumbled across a short note from a girl who had graduated a year before. She had spent the last year teaching at a college in China, and had been asked to help find more native English-speaking teachers. Two months later I was on a plane to Beijing.
Was China what you expected?
I knew almost nothing about China when I got on that plane. I had heard of Confucius and Chairman Mao, but that was about it. I naïvely expected to arrive in Beijing and see pagodas and ancient temples all around, so I was a little disappointed to be greeted by a sprawling metropolis. I'd arrived with another two "foreigners," and we were driven to a place called Hengshui in Hebei Province. It was clearly a place few Westerners ever visited, since wherever we went local people would stop whatever they were doing and point at us in amazement. I spent the first couple of weeks trying to think of a way to get out of my contract and escape. However, the more I learned, the more I wanted to stay, and have been here for six years.
The novel is based on your wife's grandparents?
Yes. Those are even their real names. Though Hou Jinyi is sadly no longer with us, I have talked with Yuying many times. I was drawn to the story because it is at once typical—of a whole generation of people—and extraordinary. Though I have added lots of detail, most of the events described (from the uncle with no tongue, the arranged marriage, and the river of floating banknotes, through to their son's death) really did take place.
How has life in China changed since those times?
We often go back to the U.K., and whenever we return [to China], we are always amazed at all the new buildings. China's big cities, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, can hold their own with metropolitan capitals anywhere. Most Chinese now have opportunities their parents never dreamed of. However, hundreds of millions of people live in the countryside and earn barely enough to feed their families. The Communist Party remains unaccountable and unchallenged, and censorship still pervades many aspects of life.
Tell us about your upcoming novel.
The Book of Crows also takes place in China. It is about a mythical ancient Chinese text, and it follows the journeys of a number of characters whose lives are touched by this mysterious book. I've always been interested in the places where history and myth meet.